A Sunny Place to Sit

It’s not that I had anything special planned for this summer. I guess like most years, I wanted nice, big, comfortable events: restful vacations for people I love. Good news. Days filled with small, manageable adventures. Long walks and heat waves and thunderstorms.

Instead, it was a pretty cold summer.

Sometimes, when things are difficult or I am in a funk, I try to shock myself out of a haze with activity. I clean out my closet. I paint something. I organize some cabinets. I find some distraction in driving to every Target in existence, buying up every roll of the shelf liners, as though lining my shelves in the right color mats will make the difference between chaos and order in more than just my cabinets.

Sometimes, this works.

This summer, finding momentum was harder. Instead, I have moved in uneven steps, not able to hit my usual frenzied getting-things-done mode.

On a day I received terrible news, news I had to relay to each of my family members, one after the other, changing tactics each time and adding to my team of People who Know Now and Who Must Tell Now, I spent part of the afternoon on Craigslist, shopping for a bistro table for my porch. My brain needed somewhere to go. You reach for the dullest distractions on the worst days.

I found a table. It was ridiculously low-priced. I contacted the seller. She didn’t respond. I spent the next few weeks distracting myself by shopping for bistro sets: Target (too expensive), Walmart (surprisingly cute), Ikea (their various tables were either out of my price range or not what I wanted). World Market had a few adorable and vintage-looking sets (I am a sucker for anything that looks like it belongs on Doris Day’s back patio), but they were all about 20% larger than would allow me to open my door.

I trolled Craigslist some more. The table, the original one, appeared again. The price had gone up. Someone had tipped this lady off. That was fine with me. The table wasn’t exactly what I had in my head, it was more ice cream parlor than Doris Day, but the price was still good, it would fit on my porch, and it needed a paint job and I needed a project.

The woman responded to my email with “Okay! There is a lot of interest in this table! Whoever shows up first gets it!” She did not leave any contact information. This made if very difficult for me to show up first. I made room in my car, got cash, googled her information. When she finally wrote back with her home address, I had already found her house on the internet. After a few trips back and forth, I had the table. As we loaded it into my trunk, she saw the Moody Bible Institute sticker on my Mini. This led, though I don’t remember how, to a conversation about people we have lost and our hope in Heaven. All of my annoyance at her evaporated. Everybody’s hurting, even people who don’t respond to emails quickly.

My enthusiasm fizzled out. The table sat on my porch unpainted for months. I told myself that this was because I was too busy, but really, it was because I couldn’t bring myself to do anything useful, much less a vanity project. Instead, I buried myself under a blanket of fantasy: I’d watch or read anything with magic, anything where good beat evil and the laws of physics would warp to fix things beyond fixing.

And then summer was nearly over. I couldn’t face that poor beige table all winter. I couldn’t put it away when I promised it that it would be new again. So I bought some paint: Rustoleum Painter’s Touch 2X Ultra Cover Paint and Primer in Sun Yellow. The name had a comforting lot of promises in it. It took a few weeks, but I finally made myself clear part of a Saturday to start washing the table down.

Repainting a Bistro Set

1) Spray the table and chairs down with the “jet” setting on your garden hose nozzle. Pretend it’s a pressure washer. Rinse all spider webs and spider eggs and grime off the table. Regret not doing this on a hotter day. Regret wearing jeans. Regret a lot of things.

2) Scrub the table and chairs with a wire brush. This will rough up the surface to make it hold paint better, knock off any loose chips of paint, and show you all the spider eggs you missed. Consider sanding the table when you see that the chipped old paint probably won’t look smooth under the new paint. Resist the urge, because this is an exercise in completing something, and not necessarily in completing something well.

3) Refuse to think about anything. Refuse to have any emotions which aren’t directly related to your audiobook, and be wary of those. When a certain young wizard is given a photo of his parents laughing and waving, scrub harder. It is probably okay if you are a little bit angry.

4) Think about how DIY bloggers usually use something called a “liquid deglazer” at this point. Think about how that sounds sort of sci-fi and would probably be interesting to try, but it would mean spending more money and taking another trip to the hardware store. Use vinegar instead. You can use vinegar for everything. Think about pickles, briefly.

5) Wash the dust from the wire brush away with a rag and a bucket full of vinegar and water and let everything dry. It will dry faster than you think and you do not have time to go inside and do something other than work on this table and chairs, don’t even consider it, okay, fine, go have some chips and salsa and look at the Internet. Just make sure you come back out again. You were doing so well.

6) Prepare your painting area by taping up some sheets of plastic in your garage. Put your phone in a sandwich baggie, because you can still use the touchscreen through the plastic, but now it won’t be covered in a haze of overspray paint like last time. Congratulate yourself on your cleverness. It is nice to solve problems.

7) Paint. Move the paint can in smooth, even strokes, like you read on that blog. Concentrate very hard on painting, covering the rusty beige with yellow. Regret not sanding. Sand a little. You will use more paint than you expect. The promises on the paint can do not mean that you don’t have to do a few coats. Buy more paint. The whole process will take you a few days longer than you thought.

8) When the paint has had a few days to dry, carry the table and chairs up to your porch. Put everything back together. If you do not feel the same level of satisfaction which you normally do upon completing a project, that is okay.

Sometimes, you just have to take tiny, tentative steps forward. Sometimes you have hope not because you want to, but because you must. Sometimes you have to make a sunny place to sit.

sunny place to sit


In Defense of Shamrock Shakes

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on March 17, 2014. 

 In Defense of Shamrock ShakesOur Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.

I remember my first Shamrock Shake well: I was in Kindergarten, and it was snack time at our St. Patrick’s Day party. Mrs. Ready poured something green from a blender into 30 tiny paper cups. I’m sure we had other special activities that day: pin the pot o’ gold on the rainbow, maybe. Catch the leprechaun, perhaps. But the only thing I remember from that day was that tiny green shake. I knew shakes came in chocolate and vanilla, even strawberry, but this magical green thing, this was something to tell mommy about.

I told my mom about Shamrock Shakes when I got home, and she, of course, already knew and loved them. This began my lifelong love of the magical green ice cream. It may help that my birthday falls just before St. Patrick’s day, so the shakes are a yearly harbinger of birthday celebrations to come. It probably also helps that I’m a South Side [of Chicago] Irish girl, so I am used to seeing things dyed a bright green in March, and it seems perfectly normal to me.

As February draws to a close and I start to express my excitement about Shamrock Shakes (I also have other hobbies, I promise), I get one of two reactions. One is a dreamy-eyed nostalgia, stories of Marches gone by, a longing for the celebratory “Shamrock Shakes are Back” banners along highways. These are my people. We will go through the drive-thru together and we will understand each other. The other reaction is one of abject horror that I would eat something “shamrock” flavored/eat something with that many calories/eat at McDonald’s/eat something that color. To these people I say, come on. Calm down. It will be okay. I am not asking you to rub yellow no. 5 on your baby’s delicate face. I am not saying you need to eat a Shamrock Shake every day they are available. (Contrary to popular belief, not even I do that. Look at me; I’m eating vegetables as we speak.)

I understand that Shamrock Shakes are not the the healthiest food in the world. This is why it’s good they are saved for special occasions. I understand that they do not have the purest ingredients. That is not ideal. But when you look at the great vastness of foods you will eat in your lifetime, I do not think that one or two green shakes a year will make that much of a difference. In fact, I would argue that your life will even be improved by the addition of a ‘Shake or two.

Shamrock Shakes are delicious. They are a light, delicate vanilla mint, not nearly as strong as as your typical mint chocolate chip ice cream. They are like eating the vanilla mint clouds which hang over Ireland. (The actual clouds in actual Ireland are vanilla mint. The more you know.) When McDonald’s introduced McCafe, they started serving their shakes in fancy clear plastic cups with whipped cream and a cherry. I think the whipped cream tips the flavor balance a little too far in the “vanilla” direction, but I can’t help appreciating the cherry, even if it’s not traditional. I am only human.

While I love how Shamrock Shakes taste, that is probably not what I love best about them. I love nostalgia. I love small holidays. I love making traditions and inventing reasons to celebrate, and I love dragging friends along for the celebration. Announcing to whoever is close by “Ohmygosh, you haven’t had a Shamrock Shake? I’m fixing that that right now.” and then making a late-night run is as much of the fun of the shake as drinking it is.

So as we see the end of this harsh (for most of the US, at least) winter and look forward to spring, I invite you to partake in this small tradition, to celebrate a minor holiday in a minor way, to shake off your March doldrums with a quick trip to a fast food restaurant to pick up a Shamrock Shake, the shake that is, to borrow Uncle O’Grimacey’s line, the most beautiful green that you’ve ever seen.


Breakfast Classic: Egg-in-a-Hole

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on April 30, 2014. 

Food Riot Egg in a Hole

I recently found myself short on groceries. My usual strategy in these cases is to fry up a couple of eggs, but, horror of horrors, I was left with just one egg. One egg scrambled isn’t enough for a grown human. A one-egg omelette is adorable, but not a meal. One egg fried is okay, but I needed something more. Just as I descended into panic, I remembered egg-in-a-hole, the second recipe I ever learned.

My first recipe came from the Klutz Kids cookbook, the one that came with plastic measuring spoons, and which I got in my Easter basket around 1992 or so. My grandma said we could cook a recipe from it, so I flipped through to find the best one. Not only did Tuna Wiggle have the word “wiggle” in the title, but it included a tip about throwing noodles against a wall to see if they were done. Perfect. What six year old wouldn’t love a recipe that involved throwing things? We made the tuna casserole, threw the noodles, and never cooked that particular recipe ever again.

My second recipe, however, became a lifelong staple. This recipe, appetizingly named “egg-in-a-hole” has been my breakfast, lunch, and last-minute dinner salvation a thousand times. Egg-in-a-hole, also called eggies-in-a-basket or toad-in-a-hole or any number of other charming, British-sounding names, is an egg fried into a hole made in a piece of toast.

Couldn’t you just make a fried egg on toast? you ask. Nope. Frying the two together gives them both a buttery crust that you can’t get from toast-from-a-toaster.

To make egg-in-a-hole, you will need one piece of bread (preferably a soft multi-grain), one large egg, butter, and a small cup or cookie cutter for making a basket for your eggie. This needs to be smaller than you think: something 1-2 inches in diameter, no bigger. Basically, something that is only a little larger than the size of a egg yolk. You want it to be small enough that the egg fills up the hole in the bread, but you want the egg to fill up the space. You can use a juice cup or small jam jar. I have made a handy diagram to help you understand the construction of the delicacy.

Helpful Egg-in-a-Hole Diagram
Cut out your hole using your cup, but make sure you save the bread that became the hole–that little bread round is the best part. Melt butter into your favorite small frying pan, and gently drop your holey piece of bread into the the butter, being careful not to rip the bread. If you do, don’t worry. Just wiggle it closed and the egg will act like glue. Fry the bread for a few seconds to give it a head start.

Break the egg into the hole and fry. You’ll want to watch to make sure you’re not overcooking the egg, but still getting both sides of the bread browned appropriately. You can do it. I believe in you. When the egg is stable enough to flip, lift it out of the pan with a spatula and add more butter. More butter is always better. Flip the egg back into the pan and let it it finish cooking to your preferred level of doneness. Add salt. Top with the little fried round, or eat the little fried round while you’re waiting for the coffee to be done. Serve.I hope you haven’t eaten your bread round. I know it’s tempting to eat something so little and cute, but please imagine how much better it will be once it’s been fried in butter and salted. I know. Throw the round into the pan with your toast. Make sure it has sufficient butter. Fat is good for you now. There are studies.

If you have timed everything perfectly, you will have an over-easy egg yolk which can be sopped up with toast. If you have timed everything less-than-perfectly, you will still have a perfect, easy breakfast/lunch/dinner.


Egg-in-a-Hole IRL



What I Learned While Binge-Watching Chopped

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on March 18, 2014. 

What I Learned While Binge-Watching ChoppedAfter my cableless self tried and failed to access the Olympics through one of NBC’s ten thousand Olympics apps, I gave up and instead went for something with a similar level of diversity, competition, triumph of human spirit, but with more crepes.

Yes, while the rest of the world watched incredible athletes push things/themselves over ice a few thousand times, I binge-watched the Food Network’s “Chopped.” As stated, this show has everything: heart-warming stories, interpersonal drama, character development, exotic foods, clock-ticking excitement, accents, and finishing salt.

“Chopped,” if you haven’t seen it, is one of the Food Network’s most popular shows. It’s a cooking competition for professional chefs. Four chefs, usually from very different backgrounds, are given three picnic baskets, one per course, of insane, incongruous ingredients which they must creatively incorporate into a delicious dish and serve to the judges. The judges’ panel is made up of famous chefs and restaurateurs, some from the Food Network stable and some not. One contestant is eliminated at the end of each round, and at the end, the winner goes home with $10,000.

While some might argue that prime time Food Network has become less educational, I disagree. Not only have I learned about a bunch of ingredients and techniques from watching “Chopped,” I’ve also picked up some valuable life lessons.

1) You are not above any ingredient

The whole point of the show is to see what happens when trained chefs are pushed outside of their comfort zones with weird food and time limits. The fastest way for a chef to lose a round is to turn up their nose at an ingredient. “Um, I don’t even eat leftovers,” said one, twenty minutes before being sent home on a leftovers-themed episode. “Do you know how many chemicals are in this snack cake?” said another, before losing on a nostalgia episode. Why yes, yes I do know how many chemicals are in that snack cake, but that’s not the point. The point is you take that snack cake and you make me a beautiful meal that transforms those sprinkles, darnit.

Life lesson: You’re not above small tasks. The trash has to be taken out, the leftovers have to be repurposed. The fastest way to move forward is figure out what needs to be done and do it.

2) Sob stories get you nowhere

Oh, so the chef grew up in a tough neighborhood and brought himself up by the bootstraps and now he wants to win “Chopped” to prove to himself that he’s made it? Well, that’s great, but his competitor was hit by a train and he’s out to prove he can still use his arms and legs. (This was a really great episode, guys.) While, yes, a chef’s personal triumph is impressive and may have gotten him on the show in the first place, he can’t rely on that to get him to round two.

Life lesson: Your story is great, but it’s not going to win you any awards. When it comes down to it, you move forward because of your talent and hard work, not your past trials.

3) Keep a cool head

I see this time and time again: a chef goes to flambe a thing, and all of a sudden their whole stovetop is on fire. They have two choices: flap their hands and yell while their food burns, or stay calm and throw some baking soda on it or cover the flames with a pot lid. My favorite was when a chef blew up her food, and while she was still flapping her hands, her competitor turned around, dosed her station with baking soda, and went back to chopping onions without missing a beat.

Life lesson: When your life starts to go up in smoke, stay calm. Identify the problem, identify the solution, take care of it, and move on.

5) It’s not a desert without a cookie

It’s the final round, and the chef has made some beautiful ice cream and served it with sauce and some fresh berries. The ice cream is original, the sauce brings depth, and the berries provide freshness. It’s a beautiful, well-rounded dessert, or so the chef thinks. When she serves it to the judges, they screw up their faces. Yes, it’s delicious, but couldn’t you have included a tuile? Maybe a cookie might have rounded this out? Did you even turn on your oven?  This is dessert, for goodness’ sake. It’s not a proper dessert without a baked good, and it’s a better dessert if that baked good is a cookie.

Life lesson: Always have cookies on hand.

4) Being “chopped” is not the end of the world

So she forgot a basket ingredient, or she undercooked her chicken, or, heaven-forbid, she cut herself and bled onto the plate. And now Ted Allen is lifting the cloche and showing her failed dish. And now the judges are listing her faults. “And these are just some of the reasons we had to chop you” is ringing in her ears as she walks down the back hallway, out to do her final interview segment. Again, she has a few ways she can go: she can criticize the judges’ decision, she can fling herself into the depths of despair,  or she can be disappointed, but learn from her mistakes. The contestants who see their loss as a growth opportunity always leave the best taste in the viewers’s mouths.

Life lesson: Take constructive criticism to heart and use your failures as a way to move forward, not back

Are you a Chopped fan? Have you learned any great life lessons? Or are you more of a “turn the TV on, veg out” type?


Take, Taste, Toss: Trader Joe’s Frozen Foods

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on May 12, 2014. 

Take, Taste, Toss: Trader Joe's Frozen Foods

Our contributors give you brief reviews of recent cookbooks/ kitchen gadgets/ recipes they’ve tried, and tell you whether you should take it home, just give it a taste, or toss it out.

I’ve said before that Trader Joe’s frozen meals are my go-to no-stress quick dinner. I probably eat one of their Indian-type frozen dinners a week, and I make sure I always have a few on hand for emergencies. Compared to other “healthy” frozen dinners, TJ’s taste the most like good take-out, if not home-cooked. (Note: yes, I call Trader Joe’s by a nickname. And, yes, everything Trader Joe’s sells is healthy. This is a proven fact as shown by all the leaves in their advertising. Shut up. I know.) So, here’s a rundown of some of my favorites (and maybe not so favorites).

Image from Brand Eating
Image from Brand Eating

Trader Joe’s Butter Chicken

Butter chicken is an Indian dish of yogurt-marinated chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, traditionally made in a tandoor. I do not have a tandoor. I do have a local Indian buffet, however, and TJ’s version tastes exactly like what I can get for $10.95 on my lunch break, but for less than half the cost . From what I can tell, there is more yogurt and cream in the dish than butter, but there is definitely a buttery silkiness to the chicken. Because the rice and the chicken are in separate compartments, you really have to pour the two together into a bowl, making this slightly difficult for, say, eating at work, but it makes sense that they need to be cooked separately in order to keep from turning to mush. I am just saying.

Verdict: Take

trader joes ancient grains pizza

Trader Joe’s Ancient Grains Pizza

I have had mixed results with Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas. They’re generally on the small side, making them 1.5 or so of a serving, which of course means that they are magically just one serving. Their crusts tend to be either too crackery or too doughy, which could be my unreliable oven, but I don’t think it’s just that. I am, however, very interested in this whole “ancient grains” trend, and, I mean, I am always willing to give pizza another chance. This pizza has my favorite crust of all the Trader Joe’s pizza crusts, including their pre-packaged bake-your-own crust. It’s nutty and wholesome-tasting in the best way, and this is probably because of the mix of grains. The first ingredient in the crust is still just regular whole wheat flour, but then comes a mix of millet, einkorn, spelt, sunflower seeds, and flax. A+ frozen pizza crust. The toppings leave a bit to be desired: the cheese is a bit too rich, the cherry tomatoes too sweet, and the asparagus too hard to eat. Like most things in life, these can be balanced out by adding some olives or capers. B- toppings, needs improvement.

Verdict: Taste, with capers.

Trader Joe’s Chocolate Croissants

Trader Joe’s Chocolate Croissants

Chocolate croissants are my gateway pastry. I was strictly a no-sweets girl until a college friend introduced me to chocolate croissants. Reader, I married them. Or at least started a long-term serious relationship with pastries that has since expanded to donuts and pie and all sorts of things I used to ignore. But I’m getting off-topic. Anyway. Chocolate croissants, my true love. I’ve wanted to make them at home for ages, but croissants apparently take several days and water directly from the Seine to make from scratch, so when I saw the frozen chocolate croissants at TJ’s, I knew I had to try them. When you open the package, you get what looks like four little pats of butter. These are the unproofed croissants. These need to rise for six to eight hours, which is not nothing, but it’s also not importing a french guy to make you breakfast, so. Also, watching dough rise is never not magical, and every time I make these croissants, I spend most of my time running back into the kitchen to see what progress has been made and texting pictures of it to my friends and family.

Now, because I love chocolate croissants so much, I’m fairly picky. There are many bad chocolate croissants in the world. These are good croissants. They’re light and fluffy and flaky, and you get to eat them warm out of the oven. There’s a good amount of chocolate, and, unlike many coffee shop croissants, the chocolate isn’t sitting like a brick on the bottom of the pastry. If nothing else, these are worth it just because you can wake up to a warm, fresh pastry without leaving your house.

Verdict: Take. Take them on a regular 6-8 hour rotation.